Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mystery man: Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie (to answer the rhetorical question of the title) is a highly-regarded British fantasy writer. I've never read any of his work, although his "First Law" series has been on my "must get round to" list for a while. A couple of coincidences over the past day have made me push Abercrombie much higher up the list.

A few days ago I came up with an idea for a scene which indulged my love of borrowing/homage, call it what you will. I had Todarko, the protagonist of The Last Free City, encounter a troupe of itinerant actors. I had thought of them originally as little more than placeholders, but--and I'm sure I'm not the only one to whom this happens--I contrived a way to make a more integrated use of them. Why not have them put on a play? Why not make it a play within a play, like we see in Hamlet (The Last Free City already has one cheeky Shakespeare riff; no harm in treating ourselves to another)? So yesterday I cracked on and wrote the scene, where the mummers convey information which they cannot deliver directly through an interpolated scene instead.

I don't know whether this is self-indulgent, a bit of fun or a piece of post-modernist intertextuality. (I hope to God not the last...). Yesterday evening I was reading an interview with Joe Abercrombie (you knew we'd get back to him in the end) and found, to my amazement, the following:

Q: I couldn’t help but notice they way in which the Arch Lector chose to “out” Bayaz during Luthar’s celebration dinner, was a play. And even the last words “Our humble purpose was not to offend.” Were the allusions to Hamlet (”The play ’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (”If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended” intentional?”

A: Yeah, certainly they were intentional. The little play within a play was supposed to be reminiscent of Hamlet, and is written in my version of cod-Shakespearian blank verse (rhyming couplets with a little drop line, but whatever, close enough for most).

It's not so surprising for two writers to have the same idea (after all, there aren't that many to go around), but it was odd to find this on the very day I'd written my own Hamlet riff. It doesn't prompt me to take it out; I'm as entitled as Abercrombie to use the device--but it does make me keener to read his work.

I also buried a multi-level Jack Vance homage in the play scene. Vance himself, in Showboat World, has his actors discover--and stage, after a fashion--Macbeth. (This is one of Vance's funniest books, by the way. I recommend it to anyone). The actors in Showboat World also perform a play of Vance's devising, Evulsifer. I thought it would be fun to continue the game in The Last Free City and have my actors perform, as their play within the play...Evulsifer. I don't know whether anyone but me is entertained by such games. My responsibility to the reader is simply to ensure that the scene works on its own merits, regardless of whether that reader has read Hamlet or Showboat World. I've had fun doing it, tipped my hat to two writers I greatly admire, and if anyone else shares my sense of neatness they may appreciate it too.

In the same interview Abercrombie mentions his three favourite fantasy authors: Ursula Le Guin, G.R.R. Martin, and Vance. These are the three I'd pick, so to some extent our minds seem to work in a similar way (how horrifying if, when I get there, I find I don't care for Abercrombie's fiction). He also name-checks Dickens, Charles Palliser and James Ellroy. We clearly have a lot of the same inputs, so I'll be very interested to look at the outputs.

If only I hadn't had a spending spree this week and bought:
The Sleepwalker's Introduction to Flight, Sion Scott-Wilson (an MNW offering)
Resistance, Owen Sheers (as recommended by fellow MNW-er Alis Hawkins)
Scar Night, Alan Campbell (intriguing urban fantasy- debut novel)
The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (word of mouth fantasy bestseller, set in a reimagined Venice)
The Terror, Dan Simmons (horror reinterpretation of Franklin's final Arctic expedition)
Cop Hater, Ed McBain (the grandfather of police procedurals)

despite already having more to read than I can reasonably expect to get through this side of Christmas.

But there'll be no more reading today until I get another thousand words or so of The Last Free City ::Acquired Taste will take a break for a little while.


David Isaak said...

Dan Simmons is amazing.

Tim Stretton said...

He is certainly versatile. I can think of few commercially successful writers with such a wide range.

I'm looking forward to getting on with "The Terror".